The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has moved forward in developing initial regulatory positions on next-generation reactors, and reaffirming the value of its international cooperation efforts.

In support of its December 14th periodic meeting on small modular reactor (SMR) and advanced reactor regulatory reform, the agency has issued two draft papers for which it is soliciting feedback: one on siting considerations, and one on designing containment systems.  This is in addition to a December 13 meeting on physical security, for which the NRC issued a draft paper for review in November.

The draft paper on siting considerations tackles an interesting issue—the siting of nuclear reactors next to population centers.  The NRC has had “a long standing policy of siting reactors away from densely populated centers,” but this is based on traditional, large light water reactor designs.  Even though such reactors are safe, some governments have taken hardline positions as to siting these reactors next to large population centers (e.g., Indian Point).  Advanced reactors reopen this issue.  The Commission has stated in the past that for next-generation reactors, “siting a reactor closer to a densely populated city than is current NRC practice would pose a very low risk to the populace.”  And as reactor designs are starting to take shape and prove themselves even safer than expected, revisiting this policy can open up a lot of new geographic options for advanced reactors.  To note, the issue of siting of advanced reactors relates to emergency planning considerations, a topic we have covered recently here.  Apart from siting though, all the papers present multiple opportunities for interested parties to comment on developing regulatory issues.

Moving abroad, in this staff paper, the NRC reaffirmed participation with the Halden Reactor Project, located in Norway.  The research reactor is managed by  the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology, but operates under the auspices of the Nuclear Energy Agency as a “cooperatively funded international research and development project.”  The NRC has a long-standing relationship with Halden and reaffirmed its commitment to it, which includes roughly $1.5 million of funding.  The paper explains that international cooperation greatly leverages agency funds, with a 15-1 return on investment through participation in the project.

Although not unexpected here, the NRC’s reaffirmation of international cooperation nonetheless is another indication of the now global nature of the industry, especially for advanced reactors.  But the U.S. government can do more to promote international cooperation in nuclear development.  Innovation in next-generation nuclear reactors is global, with, for example, URENCO’s U-Battery venture yesterday announcing an agreement with Bruce Power (a Canadian utility).  This includes scoping “the potential deployment of micro nuclear reactors across Canada, including Bruce Power being the owner and/or operator of a fleet of U-Battery units.”  Other Advanced Reactor global partnerships include TerraPower in China and Lightbridge and Areva,  Recently, two Congressmen penned a letter to the Department of Energy expressing serious concern with the slow pace of permitting in relation to nuclear technology cooperation, and recognizing that the slow pace of approvals of nuclear technology exports hinders nuclear commerce and U.S. competitiveness in the field.

Hopefully, the federal government can turn to doing more to promote international cooperation and support.  Just yesterday, the Department of Commerce published a notice of an upcoming U.S.-Saudi Arabia nuclear energy roundtable.  The goal of the event is “to initiate a partnership process between U.S. civil nuclear energy companies and the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE), and between the U.S. and [Saudi] civil nuclear industries.”  It presents a promising opportunity for the U.S. to regain a dominant role in new nuclear construction, as Saudi Arabia is pushing forward with an effort to develop almost 18 GW of new nuclear in the country by the mid-2030s.

For more on the recent NRC publications on regulatory reform, or recent international attention to nuclear energy, please contact the authors.

On Wednesday, November 15, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff published a revised and final regulatory basis document in support of its rulemaking to reform emergency planning requirements for small modular and advanced reactors, including medical isotope reactors.  This rulemaking promises to significantly reduce costs for next generation nuclear plants by employing individualized, risk-informed requirements as opposed to rigid deterministic ones.

Fifty-seven individuals, companies, and organizations commented on the draft regulatory basis document.  The NRC staff made a number of edits to respond to the comments, including further incorporating risk-informed concepts into the text of the regulatory basis, and increasing discussion of the agency’s framework for establishing the size of emergency planning zones for new reactor designs.  According to the NRC’s rulemaking schedule, a proposed rule is due to be published early 2019, with a final rule in 2020.

This action by the NRC coincides with exciting developments for the US Department of Energy.  This week the Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) at Idaho National Laboratories successfully completed low-power operations after being brought out of standby since 1994.  As explained in industry press, the restart of TREAT is a big success story for the agency, which refurbished the facility a year ahead of schedule and $20 million under budget.  TREAT specializes in testing new reactor fuels under heavy irradiation conditions, to see how they perform particularly in accident scenarios.  Testing new fuel designs is a linchpin to commercializing new reactor designs, as many of them rely on completely new concepts for nuclear fuel.

TREAT may also be getting company.  This same week, the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology approved an exciting new bill markup, HR 4378, the “Nuclear Energy Research Infrastructure Act of 2017.”  This piece of legislation tries to deliver on repeated calls to build a new test reactor in the United States.  It calls for a fast-neutron test facility to be completed in the mid-2020s that supports (among other things) high-temperature testing, testing of different coolant types, medical isotope production, and which is designed to be upgrade-able over time.  Funding is set aside, with $35 million in 2018, scaling up to $350 million from 2023 to 2025.

For more on any of these topics, feel free to contact the authors.

Highlighting how government support can positively benefit a transformative, nascent industry, Canada has again taken a lead role in support small modular reactor (SMR) development.  The country has already garnered significant attention through its pre-licensing vendor design review process, in which seven advanced reactor ventures are participating and many more have expressed interest.  But in October, the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) also released a report entitled “Perspectives on Canada’s SMR Opportunity,” which discusses the labs’ SMR strategy and responses to a request for information.

The report proves an interesting read and a useful resource for other countries or institutions looking to promote SMRs and advanced reactors.  It analyses the 80 submissions provided from across the industry.  Among other things, the report discusses the various benefits of SMRs, the types of reactors being developed, benefits to Canada, and comments related to how to efficiently regulate SMR innovation.  It also builds on CNL’s efforts to promote SMRs and advanced reactors—in 2017 CNL released a long-term strategy for its Chalk River Site, including a $1.2 billion push to promote the development of next-generation reactors.

For more about Canada’s work with SMRs and advanced reactors, please contact the authors.

On Friday, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary of Energy Rick Perry proposed a dramatic change to U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-regulated energy markets.  His rule would compensate “reliability and resiliency” resources potentially both on a market rate and/or a cost-of-service rate.  He has put forward a tight timeline for the rule, directing FERC to make a final action on the proposed rule within 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, or alternatively, to adopt the current rule as an interim measure to be modified in the future.  A complete analysis of the rule by Hogan Lovells can be found here.

Although geared towards existing nuclear and coal power plants, in the long term advanced reactors could be well-positioned to benefit from the new rule.  It is unclear if this rule will stem the tide of coal plant retirements, and without coal, nuclear power for the most part will be the only remaining generation source capable of meeting the requirements to benefit under the rule (e.g., eligible generation sources must have 90 days-worth of fuel on site).

Comments will be collected on the rule for 45 days after publication in the Federal Register.  We encourage all next-generation nuclear providers to get involved and comment on the new rule.  Instead of a short-term measure to support existing resources, this rule should be seen as a fundamental recognition of one of the many uncompensated for benefits of nuclear power.  If properly structured, this rule has the potential to support the nascent next-generation nuclear industry as it develops.  For any questions on the proposed rule or how to comment on it, please contact the authors.

The value of nuclear power’s reliability and resiliency are getting a closer look.  The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently issued a grid study calling for FERC to better value essential reliability and resiliency services performed by baseload generation, including nuclear.  Recent natural disasters have also reemphasized the real value of resilience, and the role advanced reactors can play in this regard.

The recent hurricane activity has highlighted the frailty of current power grids.  As a result of Hurricane Irma, over half of Florida lost power.  More than a week after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still largely without power, potentially for months.  While there are a number of factors that contribute to power loss and restoration, it is noteworthy that while Hurricane Harvey dropped torrential rainfall down onto Texas–leading to the curtailment of many of the region’s generation sources–the area’s two nuclear power reactors continued to provide essential power, due to a strong design and good training.

In a changing environment, recent weather patterns may become more common.  Especially in remote areas such as islands, reliable power for health care, airports, and basic services is going to be increasingly valued, as well as reliable heat for desalination capacity.  Modern reactors are designed to handle extreme circumstances, including aircraft crashes, which most generation sources do not have to consider.  Advanced reactors, many of which are being designed to operate underground or in a portable manner, are likely going to be even more protected from environmental challenges and responsive to environmental disasters. This should help put governments and utility operators at ease when an extreme weather event arises.  Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently stated in fact: “Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up and plug it in? . . . That’s the type of innovation that’s going on at our national labs. Hopefully, we can expedite that.”

The question then becomes: how can next-generation reactors effectively market and achieve market compensation for these benefits? This is a question that is hinted at in the DOE’s grid study, and may become a bigger part of the market compensation discussion in the future.

For more on the topic of advanced nuclear reactors and resiliency benefits, please contact the authors.

Last week, Areva and Lightbridge signed a binding agreement to form a joint venture to commercialize Lightbridge’s new metallic fuel technology, which promises to make both new and existing reactors safer and more profitable.  As noted in the press release, this is not Lightbridge’s only industry alliance—the company is also working with four established U.S. nuclear utilities to get feedback on its innovative fuel technology.

The Lightbridge-Areva agreement comes on the heels of some other significant announcements.  At the end of last month, GE Hitachi and Advanced Reactor Concepts signed an agreement to jointly commercialize a sodium-cooled fast reactor based off of successful designs tested by Argonne National Laboratory.  And also just last week, helium-cooled pebble bed reactor designer X-energy announced a memorandum of understanding with Centrus to explore collaboration toward production of fuel for advanced nuclear reactors, including the development of a fuel fabrication facility for X-energy’s “TRISO” pebble fuel.  And these are only what has been announced recently.

Arrangements such as these raise complex legal questions, some of which are typical of all partnerships between large and small companies, and many which are unique to the nuclear industry.  However, the potential benefits such alliances bring, by pairing new ideas with the know-how to get them through the development and licensing process, can be well worth it.  Our team routinely assists companies navigating these sorts of arrangements.  Please contact the authors if you have further questions.

Last week China announced the launch of a company to build twenty (20) floating nuclear power stations.  Russia continues to move forward with its floating nuclear power station, which are to be mass-produced at shipbuilding facilities and then towed to areas in need of power.  In fact, it is working towards initial fuel load on its first floating reactor.  Politics aside, these developments highlight a trend in nuclear power, which is the growing interest to power our cities with smaller, more flexible  reactors—which could be located offshore.

China and Russia are not the first to suggest the concept of sea-based reactors.  The world’s first operational nuclear reactors were naval reactors for submarines, and nuclear reactors continue to power submarines and aircraft carriers around the world.  In the commercial power space, a floating nuclear reactor effort called the Offshore Power System project was explored in the 1970s to provide power onshore, although it eventually did not move forward.  Since then, Russia has taken a lead role, constructing the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating reactor that will be towed to Pevek in Russia’s Eastern half for power generation.  Private enterprise has also taken interest in the concept.  For example, a company called ThorCon is proposing a molten salt reactor power that would be located on a ship and deploy-able around the world, called the ThorConIsle.  However, China’s effort may ultimately prove to be one of the more extensive ones.  The company will be formed by five entities including the China National Nuclear Power Corporation, and will have an initial capital of $150 million.

The legal, policy, and regulatory issues posed by floating reactors are as interesting as the technology.  The location of the floating reactors next to other countries is of course a key concern. The Akademik Lomonosov had to change where it would be fueled due to concerns by Norway.  Some are alleging that the Chinese reactor project is part of an effort to help boost control of the South China Sea.  The transit of floating nuclear reactors–which do not propel the vessels they are on–by neighboring countries raises legal issues that would need to be navigated.  In addition, just as the siting of wind turbines offshore has at times generated strong local opposition, similar grass-roots opposition could arise to challenge the siting of floating reactors located offshore.  These challenges can be overcome, but should be considered early on in project development.

The regulatory framework in which a private company would construct a reactor would also need to be examined.  For example, in the United States, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) Standard Review Plan for examining the safety of nuclear reactors does not necessarily envision floating reactors.  That does not mean a floating reactor could not get licensed in the United States, however, and in fact the Offshore Power System, and the licensing of the NS Savannah provide some useful precedent.  The NS Savannah was licensed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor agency of the NRC, and although this was built to be a “goodwill ship,” a goal in the construction of the ship was to meet civilian safety requirements so the vessel could be usable by the public.  Moreover, the NRC works with the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide technical support for DOE’s oversight of the U.S. Nuclear Navy.

Extending civilian use of nuclear power to the ocean presents questions, but also significant opportunities, for both the developed and developing world.  Please do not hesitate to contact the authors if you wish to learn more.

Yesterday, NASA awarded a nuclear contractor, BWXT, nearly $20 million to explore conceptual designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion system.  This is one sign that nuclear power may see a comeback in space, raising interesting legal and regulatory questions.

Nuclear space propulsion can offer much higher thrust with less weight than chemical rockets.  The BWXT project is part of NASA’s “Game Changing Development Program,” and has the potential to significantly alter space travel.  Although the exact design of any nuclear space propulsion system to result from this effort is unclear, it is clear that any design would be a novel, next-generation reactor concept.

Nuclear power has been long embraced by NASA.  For example, the Voyager spacecraft, the farthest man-made objects in space, use nuclear batteries.  NASA’s Orion and NERVA projects directly experimented with nuclear propulsion, although those programs were terminated.  But as NASA has more closely looked at travel to Mars, nuclear propulsion has reentered the fray as a potentially suitable means of travel.

The legal questions that arise from the use of nuclear power in space are varied.  There are treaty issues.  Five treaties and five declarations of legal principles govern many aspects of the exploration and use of outer space, and these and other legal documents would touch on increased reliance on nuclear power.  The Orion project, which essentially sought to use nuclear explosions to drive spacecraft, was cut off by a treaty, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  There are also commercial issues, such as a shortage of plutonium for nuclear space batteries (radioisotope generators).

Moreover, the current legal regime focuses on the government’s use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes in space.  DOE has extensive experience with radioisotope generators, and most if not all U.S. nuclear power systems launched to date, including for both security and NASA missions, have been provided under the NASA/DOE Radioisotope Power Systems Program. Space, however, is quickly being privatized, with independent companies aiming to get to Mars far earlier than NASA is planning.  The entry of private companies into space may call for an increased role for the government to take on a role as a regulator of private nuclear spacecraft efforts.

Jurisdictional oversight would need to be addressed for commercial projects that do not fall under the authority of the Department of Energy.  For example, in the U.S., the nuclear regulator for civilian nuclear projects—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—has its oversight limited to the jurisdictional boundaries of the U.S.  Other issues that would need to be addressed include fuel sources.  The United Nations Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space provide a requirement that nuclear reactors in space use highly enriched uranium, not plutonium, which has historically been used in radioisotope generators.  Highly enriched uranium can be hard to procure in the commercial sector.  Pursuant to presidential directives, nuclear power sources in space may also need Presidential approval before launch.  Other issues that would need to be addressed include nuclear insurance and nuclear liability for third party damages.

Nonetheless, the use of nuclear power in space is not a new frontier for NASA, and the agency’s renewed interest presents a promising use of this powerful technology.  Moreover, the legal and commercial issues associated with any potential civilian use of nuclear technology in space do not appear to be insurmountable.  With the amount of energy nuclear power can provide, for long duration, while using small amounts of material, this technology makes sense for space travel and exploration.

For more on the use of nuclear power in novel applications, from space travel to micro-batteries and everything in between, please contact the authors.

 Late last week the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff released its non-light water reactor (i.e., advanced reactor) “Near-Term Implementation Action Plans,” and “Mid-Term and Long-Term Implementation Action Plans.”  These two plans follow up from the agency’s Vision & Strategy Statement for advanced reactors, and attempt to more concretely lay out the NRC staff’s next steps for developing a regulatory framework for advanced reactor licensing.  A few quick insights from the two documents:

  • Both plans are based on the same five to six strategies.  The first five are, in short: (i) develop knowledge and skills, (ii) develop computer codes and tools, (iii) develop a flexible regulatory review process, (iv) facilitate industry codes and standards, and (v) resolve policy questions (one difference here though is that the near-term plans focus on technology-inclusive issues, while the longer-term plans focus on technology-specific issues).  The near-term plan also specifically lists as a sixth strategy that the NRC would “develop a communications strategy.” But a communications strategy will certainly continue to exist and evolve as the NRC moves into the mid and long term.
  • Among the six near-term strategies, the NRC staff plans to prioritize strategies (iii) and (v), developing the regulatory review process and resolving common policy issues.  This is due to “stakeholder feedback on the draft near-term [plans] and recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards” (ACRS).  The ACRS letter making this recommendation can be found here.  This prioritization will help the agency be better prepared in case applications come in for approval to the NRC earlier than the agency expects.  The NRC’s overall plan is to be ready to address advanced reactor applications in 2025, but multiple parties have indicated they will be submitting applications earlier.
  • In the near term, strategy (iii), concerning the regulatory review process, is guidance-based and is designed to work “within the bounds of existing regulations.”  In the mid-to-long term, the NRC staff bifurcates the strategy: continuing a guidance-focused approach, while considering a rulemaking to develop an advanced reactor regulatory framework that is “is risk-informed, performance-based, technology-inclusive, and that features staff review efforts commensurate with the risks posed by the non-LWR [nuclear power plant] design being considered.”

    However, the rulemaking approach is only suggested as an option “if needed.”  In discussing its long-term strategy, the agency staff stated it “will evaluate the need for or potential benefits of such a rulemaking throughout near- and mid-term activities,” based on  whether or not it will improve licensing and regulatory effectiveness.  The upshot, though, is that a rulemaking is still very much on the table, and this furthers a long-running debate as to the extent regulatory reform is needed for advanced reactors to prosper in the United States.

  • The NRC staff appears to reinvigorate discussion of conceptual design assessments and staged review processes, which as we have discussed in a prior post the agency seemed to downplay in its final Vision & Strategy Statement.  Draft guidance for these two processes can be found in the October 2016 draft document, “A Regulatory Review Roadmap for Non-Light Water Reactors.”

These Implementation Action Plans, along with the feedback the agency staff received from stakeholders and the ACRS, will be helpful generally.  However, the increasingly likely option that reactor designers will be submitting designs to the NRC earlier than expected will present a true test of the NRC’s readiness.  According to the agency staff, “[i]n those cases, the NRC will work developers on design-specific licensing project plans . . . and the NRC may prioritize or accelerate specific contributing activities in [its action plans], as needed.”

If there are any questions on the licensing regime for advanced reactors, please reach out to the authors.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) announced last week its second round of awards.  A number of these awards have gone directly to advanced reactor startups, and they hope to push forward a number of technologies related to advanced reactors or next-generation light-water reactors.

We wanted to take a little closer look at the awards in this post.  To explain, GAIN awards come in the form of “vouchers” which provide awardees “with access to the extensive nuclear research capabilities and expertise available across the U.S. DOE national laboratories complex.”  Some of the advanced reactor ventures that received vouchers include Elysium Industries, Kairos Power, Muons, Oklo, Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic Power, and others, covering a broad swatch of different reactor types.  One nuclear battery startup, named MicroNuclear, also received an award—nuclear battery technologies have been gaining traction, with the “U-Battery” consortium engaging with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for pre-licensing review in March of this year.  In addition, a number of consulting and engineering companies also received awards, and the results from those projects could benefit a number of different reactor designs.

The most popular participating DOE laboratories are the Idaho, Argonne, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, although Sandia and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories also will be partnering with certain awardees.  About half of the research projects touch on molten salt reactor technologies, focusing on topics such as different salt chemistries, thermal hydraulics, and waste reprocessing.  A number of awards focus on metal-cooled fast reactors (including regulatory support), and modeling and simulation issues.  Five projects also have a focus on light-water reactor technologies, exploring areas such as small modular reactor concepts and waste reprocessing.

For any questions related to next-generation nuclear reactors or the GAIN initiative, please contact the authors.